maanantaina, helmikuuta 23, 2009

Simple = good

Modern day gadgets, devices and equipment mostly suck and have bad failure modes. Let's illustrate this with some examples:

I have a digital TV receiver, Handan CV-3300 CNX. The picture and sound works. Subtitles also work most of the time. A few times a week the device turns on but there is just a black, blank screen on the TV and no sound. A power-cycle makes it ok again.

Like all digital TV receivers, it includes a feature called EPG or electronic program guide. This is supposed to be a display of past, current and future programming of all TV channels. When I press the EPG button on my remote, I get this information for some channels but the rows for other channels are empty. Sometimes it helps if the receiver is on for a while. Sometimes those rows stay empty for hours.

This is probably a bug in the receiver's software and will go away when the manufacturer makes a firmware upgrade available. I have had the box from 2005 and it has never found an upgrade. I have also navigated the device's menus and found the command to search for upgrades. Nothing there either. There are no upgrades on the Internet either. In fact, the manufacturer's web site has no record of this device.

My friend has a stereo set with a turntable. When we were listening to his LP records, we discovered the turntable was broken: when the arm reached the end of the record, it did not automatically lift up and return itself to the rest next to the revolving plate. The mechanism is broken. But one can push a lever to lift the arm and then push the arm to the resting position with a fingertip.

This got me thinking: The turntable is broken, yes, but not badly. It still plays the records and the small problem it has is easily amended with just a little flick of a finger. And even if the turntable develops more serious issues, it will probably still be able to play the records but with a loss in sound quality. The worse the problem, the greater the impact on sound quality. But the problem will have to be very serious indeed to completely prevent enjoying recorded music. To make it short: it fails gracefully.

Another example: Last week I got a coffee grinder. Not an electric monster but an old-fashioned one with a crank on the top. I have never used a coffee grinder. In fact, I have only seen them in films. The grinder came with a small sheet of paper on which were some hard-to-understand instructions. I could not figure them out. But the device was so simple and made from just a couple of pieces of wood and metal held together with screws, so it was easy to take it apart and figure out how it works, which way to turn the crank and how to adjust the coarseness of the grind.

It is a beautiful piece of equipment that is simple, does only one thing, does it well and is easy to understand, operate and repair. It also fails gracefully. (The device did not fail at all, the manual did.) And let me tell you: If you like coffee, you should grind it yourself. There is a remarkable difference in the taste. I did not believe it until I tried.

I am beginning to like simple things which I can understand and fix. Maybe I am getting old. Maybe it is because all day long at work I have to build and fix complex things that can and will fail in a lot of different ways. And all of those failures are bad, or very bad.

Is it even possible to build software that fails gracefully? I don't think I have ever seen such a thing...

Uusi ulkonäkö

Otin Bloggerin uudet ulkonäköasetukset käyttöön ja samalla muutin blogin pohjaa ja tein vähän muitakin pieniä muutoksia.

sunnuntaina, helmikuuta 15, 2009

Best game in a while

World of Goo is a great game! It is very easy to learn. You can play a quick game when you have the time and come back to it later. It is addictive and fun. No obvious bugs. It is cheap ($20) and carries no obnoxious DRM. It does not need a powerful computer but still has attractive graphics. It is available for Mac, Windows and Linux (and Wii.)

At the price point of 15 euros it is starting to become questionable if it is even worth the time and trouble to pirate this game. For me it was easy to decide to buy it.

Get the demo, play it, then buy the full version. Support the couple of guys behind this piece of pure genius!

sunnuntaina, helmikuuta 01, 2009

Cheap music

I was shopping in Anttila yesterday. On my way out my eyes happened on a display of music cds with an attractive price: 1,00 euro. Most of the cds had classical music, but some was music for children.

Classical music at 1,00 euro / cd is much cheaper than in iTunes Store, so I picked up Tchaikovski's Symphony #5 Op. 64, Dvorak's Serenade for strings in E Op. 22 and a collection of Johan Strauss Jr.'s most popular works.

The cds have no real packaging to speak of. They reside in square cardboard envelope with a portrait of the composer on the cover.

Obviously the publisher of these cds understands that these days the packaging is no longer important to many music consumers. The physical disc is only the medium for transferring the music from the shop to the consumer's computer and mp3 player. After the transfer, the disc can be either discarded or (preferably) archived.

I commend the music industry for coming up with this idea for competing with iTunes: Make the music cheap enough by discarding unnecessary baggage and people might still buy the discs. At least I don't have to make a backup copy of this music. And it doesn't carry any form of obnoxious DRM.

[I know all iTunes music is DRM-free these days. Unfortunately I have 365 songs in my iTunes that have DRM. Well, I can only blame myself. Nobody forced me to buy from iTunes.]

Obviously the 1 EUR price point is possible only because the music on the disc is in public domain, but I suspect the big record companies could scale back their profit margins and make up the difference by increasing sales, just like Hollywood movie studios have done. One hardly needs to pay more than 6-8 EUR for a movie DVD, unless it is from Disney.